What has become of the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared on their way to Europe? Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic scientist, said, “Knowing whether your son is dead or not is a fundamental right.
By the time Nasenet Alme Wildmikael arrived in Germany, in 2015, she had passed through four countries by land or sea and had spent a month in a migrant prison. Wildmikael was twenty-three and petite, with full cheeks and a puff of curly hair. She had grown up in a small town in western Eritrea, the fourth of ten children. Her father died when she was young, and her mother raised the kids alone, working as a laundress. Although they had little money, she refused to let her children work. Wildmikael’s home life was happy. She loved cars and wanted to be a mechanic. But there was little opportunity for the necessary schooling, and her future was uncertain. “Even if you dreamed to have something more, you knew that you would never reach it,” she told me recently.
When Wildmikael was sixteen, she fell in love with a neighbor, a boy named Biniam, and soon became pregnant. Their son, Yafet, was born in 2008. Biniam took part in the baptism and promised to marry Wildmikael, but he left for Sudan before Yafet turned one. This was her first heartbreak. Biniam didn’t explain why he left, but Wildmikael believed that he wasn’t ready to be a father and wanted to escape repression in Eritrea. President Isaias Afwerki, the country’s longtime leader, has been accused of a variety of human-rights violations, including mass surveillance, arbitrary arrest, torture, and indefinite military conscription for Eritreans. To leave the country, Eritreans must have an exit visa, but the government rarely grants them. Many citizens feel trapped. Some five thousand people a month attempt, illegally and at great risk, to leave the country, according to the United Nations. (The Eritrean government has denied committing human-rights violations.) Wildmikael’s brother, at sixteen, had to enter military service, where conscripts endure forced labor, low pay, and physical abuse; those caught trying to escape are imprisoned or killed. “I didn’t want my son to be in the military,” Wildmikael told me. When she was eighteen, she left Eritrea with Yafet, walking three days through the desert to reach Sudan.